Exclusive Veteran Interview: General William L. “Spider” Nyland

Communication and Leadership from Cockpit to Command

Nicknamed “Spider” early in his career for a unique dress and singing style at a 1950s theme party, Marine General William L. “Spider” Nyland says the moniker stuck right away. “It’s the rules of call signs, you can’t pick your own and it’s usually given to you by a superior officer. It could have been a lot worse. My email is Spider and that’s all my wife calls me.”

Hailing from a family with a long military tradition, 1st Lt. Nyland first saw combat in Vietnam in 1970. Seated a foot behind the pilot’s cockpit, he served as the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) for 122 missions over Southeast Asia. As the second pair of eyes for pilot and crew, the job was complex: communications, navigation and maintaining course, monitoring air speed, altitude, dive angles, ordinance release parameters, weapon systems and ground and enemy aircraft fire, a broad spectrum of ever-changing critical information. All of his missions were in his beloved F–4 Phantom. “I was the back seat driver (but a welcome one!) so to speak, and there had to be a lot of load-sharing and coordination that all came back to communication,” says Nyland, retired Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. “We had some close calls. During an escort mission in combat spread over Laos, a ground-to-air SAM came up looking like a telephone pole and blew up between the two jets. That kind of got our attention. The sweet old F–4 was solid though, and helped us out of quite a few jams.”

The communication skills Nyland learned early helped him develop leadership qualities throughout his career, becoming the highest ranking Marine aviator and the only four-star aviation General inside the Marine Corps at that time. From 1985 to 1987 he commanded VMFA-232, the Marine Corps’ oldest and most decorated fighter squadron. He was promoted to Colonel in 1990 and Brigadier General in 1994, becoming the first NFO/RIO in the Marine Corps ever selected to Brigadier General and subsequent ranks. He was promoted to Lieutenant General in 2000 and served first as Deputy Commandant for Programs and Resources, then as Deputy Commandant for Aviation. Promoted to General in early September 2002, he assumed his duties as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps later that month. In these highly distinguished billets he joined other Marine aviators in additional combat missions over Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Hungary before retiring in November, 2005.

“It is a great privilege and pleasure to lead Marines, and I think a big requirement is to be a good communicator at all levels,” says Nyland, 69. “The balance of that is listening and less in transmitting. It’s very important to listen and discuss, whether with a Private or General, and everyone likes a pat on the back no matter what rank. I would say, and like to think, that I was a people person. To this day – even with the best of technology – we in the military are in the people business, which makes communication that much more important.”

In 37+ years of service, General Nyland received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Merit; Defense Meritorious Service Medal; Meritorious Service Medal; the Air Medal with eight Strike/Flight awards; and Joint Service Commendation Medal, along with many others. “I’m proud to wear them all because they represent the great Marines, sailors and others in the Joint Force that I was privileged to serve with across the years. They also remind me of the times I was in command and what a privilege and pleasure that was,” he says.

Though in retirement, Nyland continues to serve and lead as a Senior Mentor for the National Defense University’s Capstone, Keystone and Pinnacle programs, sharing his knowledge with the rising brass of all services as well as the most Senior NCOs of all our services. “I’m there to answer questions, prod and explain what I’ve experienced. If I describe one thing to one individual that I learned the hard way, so they don’t have to, that’s what I’m there for,” says Nyland, who lives with his wife Brenda in Pensacola, Florida.

A former twice Chairman of the Board for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and former Chairman for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Foundation, Nyland also served as the National Commander for the Marine Corps Aviation Association (MCAA) from 2007 to 2010. He remains active in the group, which has about 4,000 veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Granada and other conflicts. In 2003, 2004 and 2005 Nyland received MCAA’s Silver Hawk Award, given each year to the aviator with the earliest designation date. Association symposiums are managed by Armed Forces Reunions (AFR). It was at the first symposium AFR managed, in New Bern in 2004, when AFR President Molly Dey, who stands at 4’11”, earned her ‘aviator’ moniker “Too Tall.”

“I’m very proud of the Silver Hawk Awards and MCAA as a whole,” Nyland says. “I really enjoy seeing all the people I served with and renewing those friendships. I especially like watching young Marines get their awards.”

Scott McCaskey is a contributing writer for Armed Forces Reunions, former Account Director at Goldman & Associates Public Relations and a former staff writer for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.